In Western Pennsylvania, there is a long legacy of environmental stewardship by philanthropic organizations. It has taken generations of committed nature lovers, outdoor sporting enthusiasts, and climate activists decades to address the scars left during the heyday of the coal, iron, steel, and glass industries. Joining together, they formed civic and nonprofit organizations devoted to cleaning up the air, water, and soil. Today, many of these organizations receive funding from foundations set up by families enriched by these environmentally devastating industries – including Cordelia Scaife May’s Colcom Foundation.
The rosy story that the Colcom Foundation tells about itself is that it is a regionally-rooted foundation committed to “remediating environmental damage from a history of heavy industry and supporting the region’s rich cultural heritage.” The true story is more sinister. The primary recipient of Colcom Foundation is the United States’ anti-immigration movement, including multiple organizations the Southern Poverty Law Center has deemed to be hate groups.
Colcom engages in the practice of greenwashing to obfuscate its true agenda. The Colcom Foundation claims immigration to the United States is a primary driver of the global climate crisis, as well as water scarcity, urban sprawl, and ecological destruction within U.S. borders. As a result, Colcom is the major funder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA, as well as myriad other organizations working all across the United States to make anti-immigrant scapegoating a central political issue in national debate and local politics.
Despite multiple exposés, including in the New York Times Magazine, the Colcom Foundation remains as active as ever. Its 990 from 2020 reveals that nearly 65% of its grants went to FAIR, IRLI, CIS, and Numbers USA, totaling almost $25 million. Most distressingly, many beloved civic and environmental organizations in Pennsylvania continue to take money from Colcom, directly contradicting their stated values and commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.
How Funders Can Help
While these organizations must cease trading their reputations for grant funding, other foundations also have a responsibility to speak out about what Colcom and other bad actors are doing. Foundations have more power than financially precarious grantees, who worry that taking a stance might sabotage their opportunities with other foundations. Why don’t most self-identified progressive foundations speak out about well known funders of dangerous movements? Are foundations following their own code of silence, enabling funders of dangerous movements because of a culture of civility etiquette among the powerful? Staying silent reinforces a culture of civility among the powerful, prioritizing etiquette over endangerment.
Foundations should also step up and offer funds to organizations that want to escape “reputation ransom.” If foundations proactively reached out to grantees of Colcom (and other foundations of its ilk) with offers to replace their funding, Colcom would quickly find themselves without a façade of respectability to hide behind. Foundations can also show their support by signing this open letter calling on the Colcom Foundation to redirect 100% of its funding to environmental and civic organizations instead of dangerous white nationalism. When well-protected foundation leaders speak out on issues like Colcom, they open up space for public conversations and allow vulnerable organizations to fully serve their communities.
Avigail Oren is an organizer with Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Pittsburgh. Bend the Arc: Jewish Action Pittsburgh is part of Drop Colcom, a coalition of over seventy community organizations in the Pittsburgh area urging Colcom to stop funding white supremacy.